Constructing a new reality
City, labor, developers, and community groups push new policy to help South L.A. residents
A new construction policy hammered out by the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, approved unanimously by the Los Angeles City Council April 23, has the power to radically alter lives.
John Harriel Jr., who was one of the speakers in support of the legislation, knows this first hand.
By age 27, Harriel had spent almost half his life selling drugs, gang banging, and living the street life. Then the Los Angeles native got arrested and convicted to a penitentiary 3,000 miles away from home.
“I thought I was smarter than everybody, so I said let me try this big time. But I got busted in Chicago. They tried to give me 50 years, but I got nine instead,” said Harriel, who had already done short stints in Los Angeles County jail and state prison.
Acting with the street-tough mentality he had developed, Harriel said he nearly beat a man to death in prison.
“I beat him so bad I had to feed him (in his cell) for 30 days to keep him from going back into the general population,” explained Harriel, who was afraid the other inmate would report him to authorities.
During that process, Harriel made some major discoveries. “I had to self check. I was mad at the world for me being there. . . I also noticed that guys who came back (into custody) were the guys who didn’t do anything in prison. It dawned on me that I was doing nothing.”
Harriel found himself determined to change that, and asked for help from an inmate who owed him money to get a job with a maintenance crew.
“When I got into the maintenance department, there was this guy I would always see around the prison. He stood out. He walked with such confidence. When everybody talked to him it was with a level of respect, and not from beating people down. It was from intelligence. His job was working in the prisons, and he had an inmate team, called the A-team.
Harriel got on the team and was told on day one, ‘If you gang bang, cut that out. Tuck in your shirt, and stop using profanity.’
“Then he sent me back to my cell, and I’m thinking, Who is this guy?”
That guy was an electrician, and he and an inmate, who had already served 40 years, took Harriel under their wings.
“The main thing they showed me was how to be a man. I didn’t learn how to be a man until I was 26 or 27 years old,” marveled Harriel, who had grown up on the streets without daily contact with his father and watching his mother fight and eventually beat drug addiction.
“As I was walking to the gate to be released, he said, ‘We gave you all the tools to be successful, now it’s up to you.’ I knew what that meant,” recalled Harriel.
Harriel now had a goal: “I wanted to be an electrician. I didn’t quite know how the union worked, I just knew I had to be in the union.”
He went to the union hall, “fresh out of prison, with braids in my hair, all buffed out” and told them he wanted a job, but found out that he did not have even the basic skills required to get into the apprentice program—a high school diploma or GED (he dropped out of school in ninth grade) and mastery of algebra.
“They said, ‘You make it very hard for us to give you a job. We’re going to send you to a place where you can get all this stuff.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be back.’”
Harriel went to Maxine Waters Preparatory Center and passed the exam.
He went back to the union and they sent him on a non-union job while he waited to get into the electrician apprentice program.
“The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘I don’t like black people,’” remembered the veteran electrician of the white company owner. He gave Harriel a job digging ditches on a hill in the pounding hot sun. Harriel kept going back. In fact, he made it a point to be the first one at work every day and the last one to leave.
He finished the five-year apprenticeship program with perfect attendance. Today, 13 years later, he is on the way to being promoted to a general foreman, owns a house, a car, and made more than $100,000 in salary last year. He is also fiercely passionate about reaching back to help young men from the community, who are just like he was.
Once an agreement is reached between the Building Trades Council and the CRA, most CRA-funded projects will be required to hire more local and “at risk” residents from the communities in which the project is being built. There is also a Project Labor Agreement in the legislation that encourages partnerships between CRA-subsidized developers and contractors and the Building Trades Council.
Alex Paxton, manager of policy analysts at the CRA, explains how the policy works.
“Thirty percent of the work hours on a project, wherever it is in the city, must go to people who live within three miles of the project boundaries. The second tier is that these jobs must go to people in the zip codes in the city with the highest unemployment, and the third tier is 10 percent of the total work hours (on a project) must go to individuals who face barriers to employment, such as no high school diploma or GED, previous contact with the criminal justice system, low income, or those receiving public assistance. Paxton added that the policy will come into play under the following circumstances:
• If it is a CRA project with an investment of $500,000 or more,
• If it is a private development where the CRA has invested $1 million or more in the form of loans, grants, land write-downs etc., or
• If the project is built on land the CRA will continue to own. Officials project that the policy will cover 15,000 anticipated construction jobs over the next five years.
CRA Chief Executive Officer, Cecilia V. Estolano said, “The most important change is that (developers) are responsible for doing nine things to be successful. If they try all nine things and don’t hit 30 percent compliance, it’s still okay; we will say you’re in compliance.”
One of the first steps a developer must take is hiring a jobs coordinator, and there are 13 agencies already pre-qualified. These jobs coordinators are responsible for recruiting and making sure that prospective candidates are work ready. This includes passing the requisite math courses, understanding the nature of the work, and obtaining support services such as childcare. There is also limited financial assistance to help pay for union dues and to purchase a first set of work tools.
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Participants in Occupy Los Angeles marched south on Broadway toward Pershing Square and then headed back to City Hall on Hill Street.
ABC7 reported that police provided an escort for the marchers, even though they were causing traffic problems.